November 2007

John Scofield: Mixed Bag

John Scofield settles in no particular mode for too long. He sounds as comfortable in R&B, funk and country as he does in bebop, rock and fusion. He impresses even more for his ability to wield an instantly recognizable guitar tone and sense of phrasing that prevents him from becoming an anonymous chameleon.

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Nick Suttle

John Scofield

“It’s never been a conscious thing,” he replies when asked how he developed such a wide musical appreciation. “I was never a jazz snob,” he says before citing B.B. King as one of his earliest idols and explaining that he grew up listening mostly to ’60s soul. “When I got into jazz, it became my passion, but the other stuff never went away.”

Despite Scofield’s distinguished three-decade-deep discography, he delivers his most captivating, quintessential date yet with This Meets That (EmArcy), on which he argues that his catholic music tastes coalesce into a greater whole like never before. “It’s my musical world, all existing together,” he explains. “What unifies it all is that all of the tunes swing. We’re not going from one bag to another.”

Cohesion and swing certainly play vital roles This Meets That, regardless of whether Scofield is strumming out the back-porch melody of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” summoning teen spirit on the New Orleans-inflected makeover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” or delving deep into modern bop on “Memorette.” His accord with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart also sparks the disc’s emotional immediacy and vitality. “This trio can touch upon all the aspects that I want to play,” Scofield boasts.

Scofield formed this trio in the mid-’90s, when Swallow and Stewart provided the rhythmic engine for I Can See Your House from Here, Scofield’s 1993 Blue Note duet disc with Pat Metheny. Three years later, Scofield enlisted them for Quiet (Verve) and later on 2004’s live date, En Route (Verve). Outside that formidable triangle, Scofield had developed chemistry with the two separately. He first played with Stewart in 1989 in a quartet with Joe Lovano. His history with Swallow goes back way further, to 1973, when Scofield arrived in Boston to attend Berklee College of Music.

Swallow remembers being immediately taken by Scofield’s prowess when they first met. “I had a small epiphany that we had a future together,” he recalls. “John and I are remarkably alike. We talk in a similar way; we walk alike; we think alike. The very first phrases we played together were remarkably in sync.”

When asked how the chemistry between the two has deepened, Swallow argues that it has kept pace. “What’s notable is that both of us have changed quite a bit over the years, but those changes haven’t presented any obstacles,” he says.

In the early ’80s, Swallow joined a renowned Scofield in another striking trio with drummer Adam Nussbaum; together they recorded two noteworthy LPs on the Enja label. When Scofield called Swallow to reconvene for another trio date, Swallow recalls being somewhat surprised that Stewart was filling the drummer’s chair instead of Nussbaum. “[The trio with Adam] had a pretty strong identity,” Swallow argues. “Bill’s style differs in almost every respect from Adam’s.”

He goes on to say, however, that Stewart’s alertness and flexibility made the transition possible. “He’s an extremely good listener, as he is a player. He heard the thing that John and I had developed over the years immediately and played to it.”

Although the tunes on This Meets That were road-tested with Swallow and Stewart, and the interactive bristle focuses much on the three players, the disc isn’t a trio date in the strictest sense. As he did on Quiet, Scofield added engaging four-part horn arrangements. “When I write tunes, a lot of times, I hear a vague but fleshed-out orchestral sound,” Scofield says, likening the horn arrangements to “icing on the cake.” Another form of “icing” occurs on the sterling cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” on which Scofield shares the spotlight with fellow guitarist Bill Frisell.

Swallow claims that Scofield is “at the height of his powers,” then notes that he’s a hard-working musician with a “very deliberate and consistent straight line of progress.”

Scofield, on the other hand, is a bit more self-effacing when assessing his position as a mighty genre-conquering guitarist. “There’s a lot of kinds of music that I can’t play. I don’t try to play classical music or Indian music,” he says. “I pretty much just stay with what I really know, and that’s the interesting thing about jazz; it’s pretty malleable.”

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